Author: Paul

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Scottsdale, ARIZONA

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Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Scottsdale, ARIZONA
Number of states:  still 34
Number to go:  still 16
First game:  October 15, 2015 (Surprise Saguaros 3, Mesa Solar Sox 0)

Matt, Rob and I got into Salt River Fields for the second half of a day-night, two-stadium doubleheader, and we got there as a result of the good offices of Brian Moore.  Brian is, quite simply, the most hard-core baseball park guy I have ever known.  I met him originally at a game in Everett sometime around 2003, when he was running out of US ballparks to attend.

 Let me say that again: he was running out of US ballparks to attend.  At the risk of telling Brian’s stories for him, he got hooked up with the international baseball community as a scorer, and has switched his ballpark travels to focus on the international: he has now attended baseball games in more countries than I have set foot in. Why he doesn’t have a ballpark telling his stories of global baseball travels is beyond me, and I am jealous of his travels.

Anyhoo, Brian, a San Diegan, got us hooked up with tickets to this game, and I got to talk to him and his dad for a while. He, like me, is attracted to the low-frills quality of the league which I had discovered earlier that day in Scottsdale.  So we got to settle in for a gorgeous desert night of baseball.

Unlike the aforementioned Scottsdale, Talking Stick is a recently created palace for Spring Training and pretty shiny and glitzy. The Rockies and Diamondbacks share the facility, and it’s easy to see the appeal: tons of up-to-date facilities

surround the ballpark, and one can look over at them as one circumnavigates the field.  The lovely grass berms in the outfield are broken up by a few locally-appropriate bits of cactus. I was most impressed by the honoring of Arizona Fall League graduates who had played there and elsewhere: it’s exciting to take a look at the as-yet-anonymous-to-me ballplayers on the field and wonder who might be the next Michael Young or Darin Erstad.  Again, cross-apply my entire love letter to the Arizona Fall League I gave in my Scottsdale review.  It was all about the baseball, no more, no less.  And I really was into that.

So this ballpark might actually score a tad lower on the score than Scottsdale, just because the newness and glitziness (to my mind anyway) comes at the expense of charm.  And, because of the primary purpose of this place (Spring Training games), it’s also a little big to my tastes.  I’ve never been to a Spring Training game, and while I might enjoy it, it’s not that appealing to me.  Too many dudes to keep track of, too many fans, too

much money (or so I am reading).  So, while impossible, I might prefer the ballpark house only half of the people in it.

For whatever it is worth, we did return for something they called the Bowman Hitting Challenge, won by an affable Miami Marlin project named Austin Dean. For what it’s worth, the number one appeal of the league–which is that they don’t really have any interest in fan experience, they just want to play ball–became a weakness for a made-for-fan event like the Hitting Challenge.  I missed out on some autograph opportunities because of some disorganization, lack of time, and generalized lack of interest.  The contest itself had some low-tech appeal (a batter could get points for smacking a guy running around the outfield with an advertising sign, for instance), but when it rained, we decided it wasn’t worth waiting out the delay and headed for pizza and drinks instead.

In any event, this place was modern, beautiful, and antiseptic.  And that didn’t matter much to me because it was the Arizona Fall League.

Scottsdale Stadium, Scottsdale, Arizona

Scottsdale Stadium, Scottsdale, ARIZONA

Number of games: 1
Number of states: 34
States to go:  16
First game: August 16, 2014 (Scottsdale Scorpions 9, Glendale Desert Dogs 2)

I flew down to Phoenix for a second-annual of what I hope will be a long-term event–a baseball gathering with college buddies Matt and Rob.  We had a house to stay in by ourselves (yay, friends of Rob) and a long weekend to play word games and BS together.  But it started a tad late.

See, my flight arrived just a tad before the first pitch of an afternoon game at Scottsdale Stadium.  Which meant we had to zip down there quickly.  Which meant I missed the first few innings.  Which meant I was in a bit of a hurry and forgot to take my camera into the ballpark.

“That’s okay,” I thought.  “I’ll just use my cell phone.”

And I did.  Took photos all over the park.

I have no idea what happened to them, other than the one above.

But it doesn’t matter. I will create such a magnificent image with my wondrous poetic flair that you won’t notice the lack of photos.

The ballpark was pretty old-school.  The Internet tells me it was built in 1992 and renovated in 2006, but it seems many Arizona Spring Training sites have been created in the years since.  And I liked the old-schoolness of it.  I was worried I’d find too much of what I dislike about the Florida State League in there: too much emphasis on the parent club Giants and not enough on Arizona local flavor. I didn’t get that feeling much at all.  The ballpark celebrated many who have gone through there, Giants and otherwise, and had some excellent points on the wall.  The faux sandstone feel on the exterior fit right in with the local world, and while the place seated a ton, it still felt just about right for what I was up to.

What I was up to that afternoon was falling in love with the Arizona Fall League.  I experienced what flat-out has to be the purest, best baseball experience I’ve ever been around.  It was splendid.

First of all, it’s critical to point out that the teams do absolutely nothing to engage fan interest. The souvenir cups aren’t for the Arizona Fall League, but for the spring training team. There is one tiny gift shop with hats and shirts and little else.  The distinct impression I got is that they had pretty much zero interest in fan appeal.

Paradoxically, that made me love this league (and therefore this ballpark) as a fan.  I was so into this entire experience.  There were only about 500 fans there, and it was festival seating: only general admission tickets, so sit where you want. (We picked behind a dugout.)  Not a promotion to be found, not between innings or (God forbid) between pitches. MLB is using this league as a way to develop their most promising prospects, and not as a cash cow.  So, while I am certainly not against a few silly promotions, their absence was an incredibly refreshing experience.

It felt like they were putting on a game for me and me alone, and I appreciated that quite a bit.  I could hear the outfielders calling for the ball, hear the chatter from the dugouts: it was everything I wanted.  And I liked that the ballplayers were wearing their parent clubs’ uniforms. It made it easier to follow the narrative of a guy’s career, easier to look up how they are doing. And, ultimately, easier to remember the best players when they made the majors the next season (as many of them did).

The ballpark itself was kinda cool, and its old-school-ness made the Arizona Fall League vivid to me.  This was as good as it gets, and I appreciated the ballpark staying out of the way.

 

 

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel: 7/10

Good, local celebrations on the concourse, desert vistas, and faux-sandstone.

Charm: 3/5
Basic and old-school, like an old friend.  Not charming, but warm.

Spectacle: 4/5
Almost none, but that’s kind of the whole schtick.  Hence the high score.

Team mascot/name: 3.5/5
No mascot, which is great (see “Spectacle” above).  I am of mixed feelings on “Saguaros” as a name.  Locally appropriate, kinda majestic, but not really intimidating.  I’ll go above average.

Aesthetics: 3/5
Fine.  Sorta basic.

Pavilion area: 3/5
I’d like to be able to see the field from the pavilion, so there’s that.  But I did like the local museum-y feel out there.

Scoreability: 3.5/5
Did fine here.

Fans: 3/5
Okay.  Fans were marvelously hard-core here, and I like that.  There were few of them.  How do I score that?  If I lived in Phoenix, I’d go to every damn one of these games.  But then again, the low attendance was one of the things I most liked about this experience.  So if I complain about the low attendance, a bunch of people will start showing up, which might ruin the whole experience.  Okay.  I’ll go three out of five and call it good.

Intangibles 5/5:
Great to be with my friends, and I will never forget the revelation that Arizona Fall League ball was.  I simply must return.  Stupid teaching job!

TOTAL 35/50

Baseball Stuff I’ve Seen There:

Scottsdale blows open a tight pitchers’ duel with a 7-run sixth inning, featuring home runs by Mitch Garver (Twins) and Christian Arroyo (Giants).

Tigers’ prospect Montreal Robinson gets the win with 2 2/3 innings of perfect relief.

Written July 2016.

 

Midway Stadium, St. Paul, Minnesota

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Midway Stadium, St. Paul, MINNESOTA

Number of games: 1
Number of states: 33
First and last game: August 16, 2014 (New Jersey Jackals 6, St. Paul Saints 1)

(Click any photo to see a full-sized version.)

(Midway Stadium is no longer in use as of the 2015 season.)

The St. Paul Saints hosted my first real-live Independent League game. The rules of my quest compel me to attend an affiliated minor league game in a state if one is available, and I only attend an Independent League game as a last resort. My August 2014 trip to Minnesota (to visit friends and to cross Target Field off of my list) was the first time an Independent League gamestpaulinprogress popped up, since my 2013 trip to Wyoming was taken care of with a college wood-bat league.

The quality of play was certainly better than I experienced in Wyoming, and for pretty good reason: most of the players in the American Association (and the Can Am League, which provided the opposing New Jersey Jackals) were a little older and more experienced than college kids. As best as I could tell, either all or the overwhelming majority of the players I saw that night were until recently playing at various levels of the affiliated minors. In fact, I recognized New Jersey Jackal Joe Dunigan from his time with the Everett AquaSox, and he clearly was inspired by my presence and homered. But, ultimately, the Saints recognize that the quality of baseball is not going to draw the fans to their ballpark when the Twins are playing major league ball across the river, and as a result, this is a night about the spectacle more than about the show. They were in danger of stpaulsidewalkoverdoing it (like Lake Elsinore, San Jose, and Missoula before them), but managed to stay just this side of the line.

The edifice itself is a mixed bag. It is surrounded by railroad tracks in what my Minnesota friends described as a no-man’s-land between Minneapolis and St. Paul. As such, there is literally no neighborhood atmosphere to be had, which explains why 2014 was the last year the team would play in Midway Stadium. The passing trains provide some pretty cool visuals and atmosphere during the game, and I like the romantic possibility that a player could hit a home run that rolls all the way to Chicago or somewhere. But that’s not enough for the surroundings to do well on the is-there-any-question-where-you-are test. Besides the trains on either side of the ballpark, the only landmark stpaulmuralone can see beyond the outfield wall is the tower that the St. Paul Fire Department uses to test its firefighters. And while it would be awesome if the tower were on fire during a game, even that doesn’t help me determine I’m in Minnesota.

The ballpark makes up for that deficit in other ways. The approach to the ballpark features what appears to be kid-art on the sidewalk, showing baseball and Minnesota-themed images. Some beautiful murals celebrate various chapters in Minnesota baseball history, including what appeared to be some Negro League remembrances, Twins greatest hits, and Minneapolis Millers ballplayers.

Also, the Saints have a massive tailgating presence—more than any other minor league ballpark I’ve been to. I was surprised (not alarmed, but surprised) at the number, variety, and innovation of the drinking games on display. In addition to garden-variety beer pong, I saw one game that featured lawn darts. Ten full beer cans are placed on the ground in a bowling-pin arrangement on either end of a narrow playing field, and players toss the lawn dart at the cans. If the dart punctures a can, the opponent of the player who threw the dart has to drink the beer down to the hole (I was anticipating shotgunning the beer, but then, I’m not an expert on drinking games. I do know that a huge number of Saints fans that night walked through the turnstiles having consumed stpaulbeerpong(if the game was played to its natural end) as many as 10 beers. But maybe not, since once I was inside, the crowd didn’t seem any more or less drunk than any other baseball crowd I’ve experienced. Maybe the heaviest drinkers just stayed out in the parking lot (perhaps because they couldn’t find the admission gate).

On the inside, American Association standings are prominently displayed, and baseball-themed contests draw crowds. I bought a Killebrew Cream Soda (quite delicious….he also makes root beer) and checked out an atmosphere that reminded me of a state fair. Booths selling fair-like foods (perhaps Northern Midwesterners need to store up all that fat to burn off over the winter?) and small-time atmosphere (which I mean as a compliment) make for the kind of experience one might otherwise enjoy.

As the pregame material started, we were treated to not one, but two primary PA guys, who operated in a bit of a Morning Zoo kind of way. My college buddies, with whom I was enjoying this baseball weekend, understand my distaste for too much loudness at a baseball game. I think they were preparing forstpaulrobandmatt me to have an aneurysm, but I didn’t. I explained that, while I don’t care for the noise, I could live with it at this level of ball. There’s a reason the Saints draw 5,000-plus a night, and it isn’t the scintillating baseball. To be sure, when the PA microphone gave out for a few seconds in pregame, all three of us cheered in response: a little quiet would certainly help this ballpark out a bit. But my rule calling for an inverse relationship between the level of the baseball and the number of promotions states that I can’t fault the team much. They managed to respect the baseball—as loud and pimped-to-the-gills as the between-innings experience was, once the first pitch was thrown in an inning, things were pretty much silent (with occasional exceptions—most notably complimenting an opponent’s thorough beard and earning a big smile from said bearded opponent) until the final out was recorded.

That said, I did have a couple of misgivings about a couple of the things I saw. First was the only promotion that raised my eyebrows because of its racial content. I believe the title was “Sing Karaoke stpaulkaraokeWith A Real Japanese Guy.” Call me PC (you won’t be the first), but I found the promotion questionable.  It was exactly what the title suggests: a Japanese man stood up in the crowd with a microphone and sang along with Karaoke-style lyrics on the scoreboard. The night I was there, the song was “Last Train to Clarksville,” which the man sang with Saints-themed lyrics centered around the team’s last year playing in the trainyard. That was it. It was strange at best. I wonder if I would have felt differently if the event were titled “Sing Karaoke With Yoshi” or “Karaoke break” which the Japanese man led every night. And I don’t want to fall into the trap where the White guy gets to decide what’s offensive or not to another racial group: a Google search doesn’t currently reveal any pushback from Minnesota Japanese or Asian advocacy groups. But I can say it made me feel just a little queasy.

But the rest of the promotions, while perhaps done to overkill, had some charm to them. The crew dragged the field in drag, which I thought was stpauldragqueencute. (My wife Michelle suggests the joke/pun might be more effective and entertaining, especially in a progressive gay-friendly town like St. Paul, ifstpaulsinners they found some actual drag queens to help out the grounds crew rather than just putting the regular grounds crew in identical white dresses. It would certainly be more fun to watch.) The sign on the front of the visiting team dugout which stated “Sinners” was cute. Early on, I thought I would be annoyed at the way the PA guys shouted “Train!” every time a train passed by the left field wall (which was quite often—it started to feel like a toddler vocabulary test), but it turned into a reasonably cool game, including shouting “Double Train!” when two trains were on the tracks past left field. I do have to hand it to them: the PA guys were funny, and while they drew the attention to themselves, they only did it between innings, which I can live with.

Of course, they were only a small part of the full-court press of entertainersstpaultrains designed to ensure that (if we spin it positively) no one was ever bored, or (if we spin it negatively) nobody ever had a quiet moment. I found the mascot, Mudonna (a pig, although I never got the story as to why it was a pig) early. But in addition to her and the wacky PA duo, there were legions of others who existed solely to pump up the crowd. I also saw a bizarre 1970s purple-suit guy, a guy dressed as a train engineer, and a guy they simply called “Nerd.” The last was my favorite. Not only was he really good at getting the crowd going, he made me feel like I was valued. Sure, it was a mascot, but here’s a guy who’s ONE OF ME!

On this night, the promotional giveaway was a vinyl LP—a good old-fashioned record album!—of Saints-inspired music recorded by Twin Cities bands. It was an interesting choice for 2014 to say the least. I don’t know what year stores stopped selling records or turntables, but it must have been in the mid- to late-1980s. I know I bought my first CDs in 1986. So the Saints gave away 5,000 record albums that most of the recipients had no way of ever hearing. But they made it a point to change that fact for at least a few of them: at least three fans involved in on-field stpaulalbumpromotions headed home with…wait for it…a turntable. These were old-school things, too: 1970s wood-paneled sides with a clear plastic box covering to lay down after the needle hits the groove, only to remove it after the last interrupted note of “Her Majesty” on Side 2.  It looked as if the Saints asked every staff stpaulsignmember to check their attics to see if there was an old, forgotten turntable to be given away, and then passed them on. It was some combination of sweet and bizarre.

Ultimately, then, the atmosphere was a winning one, and set just the tone for my friends and I to sit, score the ballgame, and make silly jokes. It appeared they took the baseball seriously without taking themselves seriously, and I give them credit for at least trying to walk that line, even if they occasionally faltered.

I will be interested to see if the atmosphere (the tailgating, the silliness, the endless promotions) will follow the team to their brand-new gleaming downtown ballpark in 2015 or if the new site will lead them to take themselves too seriously. But for now, the Saints put on a fine show that I can recommend.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel: 6/10
I appreciated the murals outside the stadium, but beyond that, there wasn’t too much in all that activity that screamed “Minnesota” to me.

Charm: 3.5/5
This easily could have been lower if they hadn’t left the baseball alone, but they did, so all the wackiness did have charm about it.

Spectacle: 4/5

Team mascot/name: 2.5/5

stpaulnerdstpaulmascot

On the left, “The Nerd,” my favorite of the mascots.  On the right, Mudonna.  Did they steal that name from the Toledo Mud Hens or did the Mud Hens steal it from them?

The team name is fine. The multiple mascots are okay, although not really tied to the team. I don’t like “Japanese Guy” as mascot. And finally, all the pig business (including a real pig delivering balls to the umpires) could work for me if there were a more readily-available explanation of why the pig is so closely associated with a team called the “Saints.”

Aesthetics: 3/5
I liked the trains quite a bit, but not too much else was going on.

Pavilion area: 3.5/5
They have set up a “Baseball Scouts Hall Of Fame,” but the plaques are positioned in a place where they are nearly impossible to read. The pavilions down each foul line are festooned with booths selling all sorts of unhealthy food, and that lends itself a really nice county-fair vibe.

Scoreability: 5/5
The scoreboard operator was excellent—simply excellent—especially for the low minors. I never had an issue with knowing how a play was scored.

Fans: 4/5
Everyone seemed there to party, and while I generally like more focus on baseball, I can forgive that focus wandering in this kind of atmosphere and with indy-league ball.

Intangibles 3/5:
There were parts I really liked and parts I really could do without, but it was a fine night with friends on the whole (although these friends and I would have a fine night anywhere).

TOTAL 34.5/50

Baseball Stuff I’ve Seen There:

I had no idea this had happened on the night, but according to the Saints’ writeup of the game, Dwight Childs was traded from the Saints to the Jackals during that day, and played for the Jackals that night.  That’s weird.

Joe Dunigan broke open a close game with an 8th-inning home run.

The Saints managed only 3 hits, mostly due to fine pitching (8 innings) by the Jackals’ Isaac Pavlik.

Target Field, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Target Field
Minneapolis, Minnesota

targetinprogressNumber of games: 3
First Game:  August 15, 2014 (Royals 6, Twins 5)
Most Recent Game: August 18, 2014 (Royals 6, Twins 4)

Click any image to see a full-sized version.

I suspect a tradition was born in August 2014 when I got around to crossing Target Field off of my list. Since my 2006 visit to the current iteration of Busch Stadium, the moment when I had been to all 30 current ballparks, 4 new ballparks had opened: Minnesota, Miami, and two in New York. Of those, Target Field was the easiest to get away to visit, and I had college buddy Matt there to shack up with. My wife was kind enough to take sole targetcloudsparenting duties for four and a half days while I went. Matt’s wife was out of town. And fellow college buddy Rob was also released by his wife to join us. Net result: a mini reunion.  Thanks, awesome wives. In fact, Rob’s wife suggested we make it an annual event. We just might…talks are already underway to attend 2015 Arizona Fall League games. So, yeah, here’s to old friends and awesome wives who understand the value of old friends.

So I got off the plane and was at Target Field not too long thereafter, where along with Rob and Matt, I met the exceedingly pleasant Mike Menner, the founder of Fiesta Del Beisbol. Every year, I hear wonderful things about friends getting together and enjoying targetpuckettbaseball in Minnesota, and every year, I feel like I’m missing out by not going. But meeting Mike at a separate baseball event was an even better deal. He took me around Target Field with a deep knowledge of the ballpark and an approach to what makes a ballpark great very similar to mine.

That approach: love of the local. And Target Field does love of the local as well as literally any ballpark I have ever attended. Sure, there are the statues of Twins greats leading into the ballpark. I’ve seen enough statues at other ballparks that they’re almost a prerequisite. While not as beautiful as the sculptures at Comerica Park (which are amongIMG_0102 the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen), Target Field added a touch to the sculptures that seemed to localize them even more. Rather than proto-Homeric statements about heroism explaining the statues, the captions were (in most cases) simply quotes from the player depicted himself. So that’s what greets us as we enter the stadium.

Next, the Town Ball Tavern. I honestly cannot think of more lovely tribute to local baseball than that place. Rather than focusing on the Twins or on their minor league predecessors, the place focuses on local ball—American Legion-level stuff. And it is beautiful. The photos on the wall of the old, local ballparks. And the memorabilia in there is exactly the kind of thingtargetlevels I’m a sucker for. Old scorebooks and programs from amateur and barely-pro teams from Edina, Eden Prairie, Duluth, Moorhead…stories of guys I’d never heard of and fans who cared about them. And all of this happening as I stood on the basketball floor once used by the Minneapolis Lakers. If there weren’t a game going on, I’d have stared at that memorabilia for hours upon end. The ballpark hooked me there.

Also: the art. Mike took me to a somewhat off-the-beaten-path spot with art representing all 30 current MLB stadiums. The artist got it right with nearly every ballpark. I’m glad someone else noticed the coolness of the toothbrush-style lights at Progressive (nee Jacobs) Field. And I think it’s a bit of a negative that the characteristic the artist selected as the most individual about IMG_0091my home ballpark, Safeco Field, was that stupid roof—the most unappealing part of it, at least as I see it. But again, I found myself slowing down—way down—to enjoy that art. Score another for Target Field.

Two days later, I learned the benefits of having friends who persuade people for a living. Matt and yet-another college buddy, John, kinda got into a competition over who was the most silver-tongued, and I was the beneficiary. The result was almost unconscionably fun.

It all started with my own weaknesses. I wanted to see one relatively-exclusive area that my ticket would not allow me in. So I went up to the usher guarding the place.

ME: “Excuse me. Is it possible for me just to go in there and take some photos?”

USHER: “No. Sorry. This area is for only those with tickets to go there.”

ME:  “Okay. Thanks.”

This is why I cannot have a job as an attorney or (God forbid) a salesman. I just don’t have any desire to extend thattargetbrunansky conversation.

Thankfully, Matt heard what I said and proclaimed me to be comically weak. “You’ve really got to sell yourself,” he said. “I think you’re selling yourself well short.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, I think I can get you into the Delta Club.”

The Delta Club was a place that Mike had told us about two nights earlier…a place for the muckety-mucks to spend their money, a place with fabulous memorabilia—exactly what I wanted most. And Matt thought he could get me there? Well, let’s see how it works. We approached the usher. I kept my mouth shut and let Matt get to work.

“Hi! This is my friend Paul. Paul is a nationally-known baseball blogger who travels around the country writing about and photographing baseball parks. He’s here this weekend visiting Target Field. Is there any way you can let us into the Delta Club so he can take some photos?”

“Sure.”

Oh…so targetclubTHAT’S how it’s done!  I think it was in the “nationally-known.” I suppose I was. Just in that group of friends, I could prove that I was known in both Idaho and Minnesota. Plus, I know myself…that’s Washington! And who knows what state you’re in, friendly and kind reader of these words! That’s a fourth state!

Needless to say, the sorts of Twins stuff in there continued to emphasize what Target Field does best: a celebration of Minnesota baseball history. It’s no surprise to see the Hall of Famers in there:IMG_0096 Puckett, Carew, Killebrew. But I always like it a little better when I find Tom Brunansky or Gary Gaetti around there. I squinted at Puckett’s contract. I checked out a K-Tel produce for Carew. I examined Brunansky’s jersey. I photographed everything through glass cases. And my friends trailed me throughout, fellow beneficiaries of Matt’s persuasive phrase-making. It shifts the focus from baseball history to Twins history, and that’s the best I can find. In fact, the Twins history was live and in the flesh on this day: Tony Oliva was enjoying lunch before the game (no, I didn’t take a photo…felt weird and stalkerish to do that, even as a nationally-known baseball blogger).

Great night, right? Well, John couldn’t be shown up.

See, John is a lawyer, and he couldn’t let Matt (who advocates for underdogs for a living–he is one of my life role models) show him up in the persuasive-speaking department. We had targetskylineourselves a genuine, friendly competition going on (and I was the winner).

“Well, Paul, I know that the Twins’ World Series trophies are downstairs in the Champions’ Club. It’s the $500 a ticket place, but I think I can get you in.”

“Really, John?”

“I’ll just tell them that you’re a renowned baseball lifestyle blogger.”

I started laughing. “That doesn’t’ even mean anything!”

“I know it doesn’t. But it sounds good, doesn’t it?”

John went to work. He had to demonstrate Matt wasn’t the only one who could talk ballpark personnel into bending the rules for me. He headed to the Guest Services booth and asked to speak to someone from Media Relations, since he had a baseball lifestyle blogger with him. We waited a few minutes, and up walked Patrick Forsland, the affable and kind director of Guest Services for the Twins. John was ready.IMG_0099

By the way, my favorite part of what follows is the pause.

“Hi. This is my friend Paul Hamann. [Pause. A little longer than you might think.] He’s a baseball lifestyle blogger who writes about ballparks he travels to. Now, I want him to write a really good review of Target Field. You see, the last time he was in Minnesota was 21 years ago, and the Metrodome, as you see here [John produces his smartphone with my MLB ballpark ratings upon it], he has it ranked 41st out of 45. I think that Target Field is more likely to be at the top where it belongs if we could get him down to the Champions’ Club and show him the World Series trophies.”

Much to my delight, Patrick agreed. Next thing you know, we all were on the elevator headed down to the crème-de-la-crème of the Twin Cities elite, snapping photos of the World Series trophies.

targetpatricktargettrophy

I did like the Champions’ Club. It was strikingly similar to Safeco Field’s Diamond Club, where I spent the 2011 Dads Gone Wild with my friend Andrew. I guess I don’t like the concept of having the World Series trophies in a place where only the rich can see them: there must be a better way for all Twins fans to celebrate them regardless of their annual household income. Then again, I don’t think I’ve seen actual World Series trophies in any other ballparks; maybe the Reds had their 1990 trophy in their museum and I missed it? Or is it sitting around in a glass case in the team’s offices where fans can’t see it at all? So maybe it’s actually more accessible rather than less.

But the place had a nice twist: one could watch the team take cuts in the batting cage before the game through a glass cage in the restaurant area. It was quite nice. Anyway, this baseball lifestyle blogger can thank both his silver-tongued friends and Patrick for taking him down to the Club. Yes, it didtargethrbek impact the ranking. (A reminder to ballpark staff everywhere: I absolutely, 100% can be bought.)

So all of these local touches would mean nothing if the ballpark itself weren’t part and parcel with the locality—just putting these local perks inside the lamentable Metrodome would have done absolutely nothing for the ballpark there. But Target Field is fantastic, passing the is-there-any-question-where-you-are test even if I had never left my seat. The integration of the ballpark with downtown is seamless and beautiful; it fits right in with the indoor walkways that maketargetlucy the place famous. Midwestern down-hominess prevails, from an actual 50-50 raffle (haven’t seen one of those outside of a high school event before) and donuts for sale. As I waited through a rain delay at one game and a non-delay half-inning rain shower at another, I was able to enjoy the gorgeous pink sky that only a Midwestern rainstorm at dusk can provide. Not even the terrible baseball played by a bad Twins team (I saw them defeated thrice by the Royals in a year when the Royals seemed to be putting it all together)  could counteract that.

And neither, of course, could going to games with my friends. Rob still leads the non-family division of most ballparks visited with me…Three Rivers, Wrigley, Kingdome, and now Target Field…and probably 10 minor league parks on top of that. And Matt and I sat there chatting about old times, including a spat of comparing notes on the positives and negatives (nothing disrespectful, I assure you) oftargetguardadomack our college-era exes. Matt noticed that one member of the elderly couple seated in front of us, trying not to show they were eavesdropping, wrote on her scorecard: “They’re talking about past relationships!” Ah, the Midwest. Nosy and passive-aggressive, and yet endearing in its own way.

And in the end, the positives and the pervasive Minnesota-ishness of the place carries the day. It’s one of the better ballpark experiences I’ve ever had—baseball-centered and Minnesota-centered, with all of the friendliness of the region as well as the friendliness of my actual friends. While I will be to many more ballparks with Matt and Rob and, I hope, John and new friend Mike, I’m not sure any of them will be as nice as Target Field.

BASEBALL STUFF I SAW HERE:

2014 debutantes and eventual league champions Kansas City were in town for a four game series, of which I saw three.  The Royals, in the midst of their historic and memorable ascension, took all three games I saw.

Josh Willingham, who had just been traded away from the Twins, provided a crucial bases-clearing double in the first game.

Six homers in a lamentable rain-delayed 12-6 Royals win in game two–Willingham had another.

Erik Kratz–whom I had seen win MVP of the 2010 AAA All-Star game–homered twice in the series finale.

A pair of saves for Greg Holland.

Centene Stadium, Great Falls, Montana

Centene Stadium, Great Falls, MONTANA

Number of states: still 32
States to go:  18

Number of games: 1
First game:  July 5, 2013 (Great Falls Voyagers 7, Helena Brewers 1)

Click on any image to see a full-size version.

Maybe I was tired as I approached Great Falls:  it was the last in a three-games-in-three-nights-in-three-cities stretch.  While my family (my sons were 4 and 2 at the time) were game and had good attitudes, I think we were looking past this game to the sitting-down-and-doing-nothing-in-Glacier-Park

that followed.  But Centene Stadium left me very little to like about it: it lacked both old-time charm and modern amenities.  It was unattractive and an overall unfortunate place to see a game.

When I saw the ballpark on a map, I was intrigued.  It looked like it abutted the Missouri River, and as I drove to the park and saw how we were at the top of a significant canyon, I thought there was promise for some views.  But alas, the park is constructed in a manner that has literally no views from anywhere.  You’re inside a fortress with four tall walls, and all that’s available is the stadium itself, which, alas, is hardly physically attractive.

There were some sweet moments that will cause my memory of Centene Stadium to be positive overall.  We were greeted by a sweet

girl who I’d bet money was a prominent member of her high school’s drama club.  She sold me my program, and then told us that we got a free song with the program.  That’s a pretty good deal.  But when she offered to sing the Oscar Meyer Weiner song (since it was 50 cent hot dog day), I declined and instead asked her to sing “Bingo,” since my 2-year-old was a big fan of it.  I was a little surprised she needed help remembering the words.  Seriously:  A farmer.  Had a dog.  The name is given in the title.  The spelling isn’t tough.  But she did sing it and my toddler enjoyed it, and I am thankful for that.

Both of my kids were then treated nicely in a trip to the dugout, where catcher Zach Miller and especially shortstop Tyler Shryock signed

my kids’ scorebooks and spent some quality time talking to the kids.  (Shryock had three hits and two RBIs. Happy to bring my kids back as good luck charms, Tyler.)  Fist bumps, asking my kids if they were going to play baseball…and the like.  That made me feel good.

Although Centene Stadium mostly fails the do-you-have-any-idea-where-you-are-in-the-US test (since we can’t see mountains or river or even buildings from the inside of the ballpark), there are a couple of areas where they do well.  I was interested to see how the team handled

its rich history: nearly 20 years as a Dodgers affiliate, with nearly 20 years as a Giants affiliate before that.  The history was there if one was willing to look for it.  There were some old pennants honoring teams going back nearly a century near the entryway, and a brick baseball field made with donations from, if I recall correctly, the Great Falls Dodgers Booster Club.  (Steven enjoyed running around that diamond, occasionally to the cheers of affable locals.)  But beyond that, there was little.  The Voyagers name felt bizarrely out of place.  It would work if there were a Lewis and Clark theme—indeed, would work especially well in the Pioneer League.  But space travel?  What in the heck does space travel have to do with Montana, or vice versa?  The mascot, Orbit, is also therefore out of place.

Game presentation also left much to be desired: the game was viewed primarily as a promotions transference device rather than a baseball game.  It was an interesting contrast to Billings the night before, where I felt they might not have done enough: here, we were worried about the ballpark going to the excesses of Missoula, which remains (alongside San Jose) one of the most unpleasant nights of baseball in my life.  When the Voyagers had baserunners, the “ducks on the pond” were sponsored by AFLAC, and some fans busted out their duck calls.  Pretty weak tie-in, and results in too-frequent annoying sounds.  At another point, there was a request over the PA:  “Grounds crew, can we have the lights please?…[pause]…This request was brought to you by Suchandsuch Electric…”  Really?  Also, rather than just announcing names, the PA guy went overboard, shouting

“All right!” and “Nice hit!” and other vapid statements. The cheerleader PA guy is another of my pet peeves.  Do the Voyagers really believe their fans are so stupid as to need to be told this?

When all was said and done, the promotions seemed to ease up a little as the game went on, so we were still able to get in a nice night of baseball—the game operations didn’t

totally trip over their own feet.  But I would still like to see the whole experience toned down just a notch.  Maybe this will take place if the Voyagers ever leave this ugly spot.

It’s funny: there are old ballparks in the minor leagues that I enjoy for their oldness.  In some ways, I miss Eugene’s old Civic Stadium, and when the Brewers leave Helena (as seems inevitable) for some gleaming new ballpark by a river somewhere, that will be a loss as well as a gain.  But Centene felt like it gave all of the negatives of an old ballpark with none of the positives.  I believe the team and its fans could do far better.

Ballpark score:

Regional feel:  5/10

That’s the General Mills factory next door to the ballpark.  Normally, this would be a strong advantage in the is-there-any-question-where-you-are test. However, when in the ballpark, it is literally impossible to see outside of it: no mountains, no river, no factory…no Montana at all.  The sense of Montana baseball history in the ballpark is nice, and saves this from an even lower score.

Charm: 2/5

The ballpark has aged without gaining charm.

Spectacle: 3/5

Promotions were about right, but too much yelling and cheerleading for my tastes.

Team mascot/name: 2/5

The name does not seem to have anything to do with Montana, and the mascot and name feel forced.

Aesthetics:  2/5

Again, perhaps I’m unfairly comparing to the beautiful Billings ballpark I saw 24 hours earlier, but Centene Stadium offered nothing pretty to look at.

Pavilion area: 1.5/5

Much of the area was underground and charmless: only a little bit was upstairs in the sunshine.

Scoreability: 4/5

Fine job here: my 4-year-old and I were able to keep up.

Fans: 4/5

Very nice people who were smiling at my children at every opportunity.  Thanks, Great Falls.  Minor deduction for cheerleader-ness.

Intangibles:  2/5

I’m afraid that, on the whole, the ballpark did nothing for me.

TOTAL 25.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN THERE:

Jacob Morris had the big highlight of the night, with a 6th-inning grand slam that put the game out of reach.

Jose Bautista (no, the other one) pitched well to get the win.

Written July 2013.

Dehler Park, Billings, Montana

Dehler Park, Billings, MONTANA

Number of states: still 32
States to go:  still 18Number of Games:  1
First game:  July 4, 2013 (Billings Mustangs 6, Missoula Osprey 2)

Click on any image to see a full-size version.

On a hot 4th of July–the 10th anniversary of the first of my minor league travels–I

arrived at Billings with family in tow.  There, I found an absolute jewel of a ballpark nestled against the Rocky Mountains.

Dehler Park passes the main test I have for all ballparks: the is-there-any-question-where-you-are test.  The instant one walks through the home-plate gate, one is faced by what Wikipedia tells me is the “Rimrocks,” a 500-800 foot cliff that skirts Billings’ north and east sides.  It’s a flat-out gorgeous view that occupies my mind during slow points in the baseball.

On top of that, Billings does incredibly well with its baseball history.  The Mustangs’ 40-year affiliation with the Reds certainly helps.  Dehler Park seemed to focus a bit more on recent Mustangs

 than more distant ones (I saw huge tributes to Jay Bruce and Joey Votto prominently displayed), but not exclusively: the program celebrated more distant history.  Dave McNally’s statue greets fans as they enter the stadium, and the plaque lists his accomplishments as a Billings Little Leaguer more prominently than his Major League exploits.  I like that.  There is also significant love for Ed Bayne, a legendary local American Legion coach from the middle of the 20th century.  I love that these two locals are treated as practically equals, and that my 4-year-old could literally shake hands with the Bayne photo (Bayne also gets a good deal of love in the Billings American Legion Hall of Fame inside the stadium).

Lineups were prominently displayed, which came in handy for Steven as he wrote down the lineups before the game (this always gets looks).  More importantly, Billings has what I most like at any level of ballpark: the ability to circumnavigate the park without ever surrendering the view of the field.  Some locally appropriate fare was available (but no thank you to Rocky Mountain oysters, okay?), and those mountains…oh, yes,

those mountains.  I liked how the ballpark kept standings for the Pioneer League on a flagpole in center field, much like at Wrigley Field or (horizontally) at Safeco Field.  Keeping an eye on your own league and taking pride/focus in the minors, rather than just the majors, scores points for me.  And the concourse was popular on this particular afternoon.  Some of this was that people were gathering back by the concession stands’ edifices to get a little shade.  My wife remarked, however, that people past the left-field wall were awfully good-looking to be gathered in one place: that the Mustangs seemed to have created a pretty cool place for beautiful people to gather for a holiday.

I think this might be related to my very small quibble with the park: it was run a little too slickly for my

 tastes, at least in the very-low minors.  There were no on-field promotions that I recall, and everything in the design was out of central casting for the gleaming-new-minor-league-ballpark-of-the-early-21st-century that has popped up everywhere.  I’d like for them to let their hair down a little—a little—and allow  themselves to celebrate a little wackiness every now and then.  I wondered a little bit whether Billings’ status as the largest city in Montana required them to show a little more reserve than their competitors in Helena, Great Falls, and Missoula.  And make no mistake: anything (including an anesthetic-free root canal) is preferable to the abomination of volume and horror that was Missoula.  But I feel like the Mustangs were reserved to the precipice of stuffiness.  I would like to see them embrace just a little more of a low-minors “what the hell” attitude.

But this is a quibble.  If I could make all 38 games here every year, I certainly would.  As it is, I will have it on the short list of ballparks to return to if ever I’m zipping across I-90.  You should have it there as well.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional Feel:  9.5/10

Total home run here.  The Mustangs celebrate Montana baseball history unabashedly and enthusicastically.  They look back on the history of their team with passion.  And man oh man, but that view of the Rimrocks is fabulous.

Charm: 4/5

Gorgeous, but a little too slick for a perfect score.

Spectacle 2.5/5

I remember no promotions.  In a way, I like that, but in a way, I miss it.

Team mascot/name  2.5/5

Couldn’t find Homer in the crowd, but here he is anthropomorphized into a bouncy-house.  I don’t mind the Mustangs name, but Homer would be the #1 Mascot name on Family Feud, so I can’t go too high here.  That and, again, I didn’t see him.

Aesthetics: 5/5

Gorgeous inside and out.

Pavilion area: 4.5/5

Plenty to walk to, and around, and all without losing sight of the field.

Scoreability:  3.5/5

Minor glitches.

Fans: 3.5/5

Granted, it was July 4th, but even with that, I thought there was a tad too much casualness for my tastes

Intangibles: 4.5/5

A great, if rather hot, afternoon.  I will be back.

TOTAL:  39.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I SAW HERE:

Ty Washington’s second-inning triple gave the Mustangs the lead they wouldn’t give up.

Jose Guzman pitched 5 1/3 shutout innings, followed by 1 2/3 of perfection by Scott Brattvet (including two strikeouts and a double-play).

Written July 2013.

Mike Lansing Field, Casper, Wyoming

Mike Lansing Field, Casper, WYOMING

Number of states:  32
States to go:  18

Number of games:  1
First game:  July 3, 2013 (Casper Cutthroats 8, Northern Colorado Toros 0)

Click on any image to see a full-sized version.

My 2013 visit to Casper marked the first time I had to invoke the “in the event there is no affiliated baseball in a state” clause in my minor league state quest.  Casper had had a Pioneer League team for

 about a dozen years before they left for the greener pastures of Grand Junction, Colorado in 2012.  My family set up a Wyoming-centered vacation the year following, and we selected the Casper Cutthroats of the Mountain Collegiate Baseball League (a college wood-bat league) as the game we’d attend.  I’d been to one college wood-bat game prior to this (I checked out the Cowlitz County Black Bears, who play ball about 35 minutes north of my house, back in 2012), but that was a lark out of curiosity: this wood-bat  league game sandwiched between 6 affiliated (low-level) games on the same trip was occasion for some soul-searching as to why it’s important that my minor-league ball be affiliated.

First and foremost, I think that I like affiliated ball because it’s easier to follow the story arc.  From Pulaski to Tacoma, I know that every ballplayer has the same goal:  to play for the Mariners.  I can get a good sense of how things are going with the insert of any decent minor league program: give me a guy’s age, stats, draft slot, and most recent team, and I’ll be able to tell you (with some margin of error) where the guy is with relation to his goals and how things are going for him. In independen

t league ball (which I admit I have not yet watched), the story arc is much trickier.  A vast majority of the guys playing there are affiliated-team castoffs that are looking for one more chance to get noticed and hook on somewhere.  Occasionally one makes it back into the fold and even makes the majors again.  However, that’s just too hard to keep track of for me, and the diamonds in the rough are too difficult to anticipate.  While it may be true that independent ball is possibly of a higher quality than lower-level minor league ball, the difference is likely not good enough for me to suss out with the naked eye in a single game.  I’ll take the story arc over the quality of play.

Casper offered me a different brand of ball, however: college wood-bat league.  The quality of ball was not that high, at least as far as I could see.  I don’t want to pretend that the low minors are always scintillating baseball: there are certainly some blown plays.  It felt like there were far more

blown plays, however, in the game in Casper that would have been made in a regular league.  On top of that, I had a problem with the design f the league.  Casper’s win on this July 3rd night gave them a record of 27-1 (the preceding is not a misprint).  And I have an issue with the lack of parity in the majors!  I was left wondering how this was even possible.  Turns out we had some conversations that clarified the way the league works.  If I were the commissioner of a college wood-bat league, I’d gather an appropriate number of players at all positions and then randomly assign them among the teams in my league.  Turns out that’s not the way it works.  Each team goes out and gets players.  In fact, players pay for the opportunity to play in the league, even to the point of paying for their own bats.  Much of this gathering of players is based on who one knows.  As a result, Casper had an advantage over other teams not only in quality of players,  but even in quantity.  Opposing pitchers who are getting shelled aren’t relieved often: if a team has an entire pitching staff of 5 or 6 people (which I was told was a reality for some teams in the league), they stick with the starter even on an off night.  To me, this is grossly unfair and makes for a less-fun product.

That said, the Cutthroats provided a fine night of entertainment.  They had an appropriate number of promotions for low-level

 baseball, but more importantly, they opened up the whole team for autographs after the game.  My 4-year-old got an autograph from an opposing player before the game, but then scored about ten after the game, walking right down the line of kind college kids.

And they were college kids.  Before the game, as I meandered around the ballpark taking photos, the team was engaging in a juvenile contest—a stupid-boy game that anyone with a Y chromosome understands the appeal of.

 They were competing with each other over who could get over the 3.5-ish foot wall without using his hands.  Some tried scissor-kicks, some placing their abdomens on the rail and depositing themselves over.  But all seemed to be having a great time doing it.

The ballpark was fine: adequate, not great.  I could see why the Rockies would rather have been in another facility (although I’ll have to wait at least a year before I can

 see Grand Junction for comparison’s sake).  Conversations indicated that the Rockies were dissatisfied with lighting and sod, and I could see issues with both.  It brings up an issue I have with minor league baseball in general:  I can understand why a team would not want to keep their team in a small or antiquated stadium.  In fact, if I were the owner of such a squad, I’d want to move them out of such a place too.  But as a fan, I like the homey feel of places like this, Batavia, or Helena.  It’s just about perfect.  It’s also on the way out.  (Sort of.  The Brewers, since they play in an ancient, antiquated, and unsalvageable Kindrick Field, are rumored to be looking into heading out…to Casper.  We shall see.)

I enjoyed the light Rocky Mountain thunderstorm that blew across before first pitch: it reduced the temperature

from the 90s to the 70s, for one thing.  And the Wyoming touches in the stands were quite nice as well, even if some were all about the Rockies.  April, who sold me my tickets over the phone, remembered me and even let me have a couple of foam fingers for free (the Cutthroats do not sell mini-bats, which I buy for the home team of every ballpark I attend on my minor league quest, so I needed a substitution and sent with a foam finger).  I found it sweet she sold (gave) me the foam fingers (gave me the finger?) while holding her son in her arms.  It just felt right.

And then I met Brian.

Brian marks a milestone for me: the first time I have been recognized—stone cold—for my website.  He came up and said “Hey, you’re from tomsballparks.com!” We corrected the name, but he had it figured out from my Mariners shirt and my Hillsboro Hops hat…that gave him the clues, and my photos of myself did the rest.  This was the closest I will ever come to being a celebrity, so my wife left me alone with Brian for quite a while.  He had served as the Casper Ghosts’ mascot for a number of years and was a regular at Cutthroats games, and gave me some of his perception on what went down that caused the Ghosts to flee to Colorado.  We talked minor league ball for a while, and in the process, he quoted at least a dozen of my minor league pages.

 It was simply incredible: he probably knows this website better than I do.  I had a wonderful time talking to him.  At the end of the night, he said it was “spectacular” to meet me.  I have never been recognized by a stranger before, and I have to admit I rather liked it.  It might be time for me to form a band or something and get some groupies.

All in all, while the ballpark was lacking in a few areas, it was a splendid night for a million more important reasons than the ballpark itself.  It’s a long way from Washington to Wyoming, but Casper and the many great people I encountered there made it worthwhile.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  6/10

Not terrible, but not great either.  There’s a hodgepodge of local history to be found, but nothing that screams “Wyoming” in the view (just a couple of hotels and generic office buildings).

Charm:  4/5

Small-town charm in a number of ways.  I loved the family feel, the autographs, the way the wife of the owner runs the gift shop while carrying her son on her hip…quite a lot going on here.

Spectacle: 3/5

I’d have liked a little more on this level, but I still liked the show.

Team mascot/name: 3/5

I didn’t see a mascot, but I can cut the team some slack there due to what were clearly shoestring budgets.  “Cutthroats” was a cool name: threatening, but locally appropriate (it’s a fish).

Aesthetics:  3/5

Some nice high-plains light, but again, not much of a view.  The place is more utilitarian than anything else.  Middle-of-the-road.

Pavilion area:  3.5/5

Huge, expansive areas to walk around, but not a lot there, as shown:

Scoreability:  2/5

Not much help here–was occasionally confusing.  Again, this might just be a product of the level.  That’s the breaks.

Fans:  4.5/5

Sorry, Brian, and sorry, awesome couple we talked to:  couldn’t give it a perfect score because I was harassed by a drunk fan in the bathroom while I was trying to get my 4-year-old son out of a locked stall.  (Thankfully, the drunk’s friend whisked him away, and thankfully again, I was able to clamber on the floor to rescue my firstborn.)  Here’s a picture of the nice couple, parents of Northern Colorado Toro shortstop/pitcher Mike Lewis.  We talked to them at great length about the league and how it works.

Intangibles:  5/5

Dude!  I was RECOGNIZED, people were nice…and then there was a whole night of autographs for my kids.  I left the park feeling wonderful, and you just can’t argue with that.

Total:  34/50

BASEBALL STUFF I SAW HERE:

Cutthroat Jamie McCaffrey (of Corban University in Oregon) will become my litmus test for the quality of this league, as he totally owned the Toros on this day.  He pitched a five-hit shutout, walking none and striking out 16.  Sixteen.  If he flames out in the very low minors, or doesn’t get drafted, that will tell me something.

Third baseman Julian Cronk (three hits) and first baseman Blake Loran (a double and a triple) led a 13-hit attack for the Cutthroats.

Written July 2013.

Hillsboro Hops Ballpark/Ron Tonkin Field, Hillsboro, Oregon

Hillsboro Hops Ballpark/Ron Tonkin Field, Hillsboro, OREGON

Click on any image to see a larger version.

Number of states: still 31
States to go:  still 19

Number of games: 18
First game: June 17, 2013 (Hillsboro Hops 12, Eugene Emeralds 0)
Most recent game:  September 4, 2015 (Hillsboro Hops 2, Eugene Emeralds 0)

I went three years without baseball anywhere close to where I live.  Three.  Long.  Years.  When the AAA Portland Beavers bolted town in order to allow the charming, perfectly-serviceable PGE Park to be made into a soccer-only facility and

rechristened Jeld-Wen Field, the closest professional baseball to my Vancouver, Washington home was the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, who play in lamentable, ugly surroundings and are an hour drive without traffic (which isn’t often).  But I knew the Portland market would not stay empty—it was the largest market in the US without professional baseball, and someone had to figure out a way to make a stadium to make some money out of that vacuum.

For a short while, it looked like that would be Vancouver, as the Yakima Bears Northwest League team looked for an upgrade from Yakima County Stadium.  A good plan for a gorgeous stadium within walking distance of my house came into being.  The Bears would pay a good chunk of the

money, but wanted taxpayers to foot some of the bill—and (in what I liked most) the county would own the stadium, with the minor league team leasing the ballpark for their 38 days a year.  I walked the site of the potential ballpark with my wife, and we anticipated being regulars there.  Alas, the never-tax-me-for-any-reason-whatever crowd won the day.  Hillsboro, Oregon, a suburb west of Portland, pounced, and as a result they became my “home” minor league team, about a half hour drive away (in good traffic).

The result is Hillsboro Hops Stadium, and I like most of what they’ve done with the place.  The ballpark is the center of a high school sports complex, right next door to the football

 stadium.  The designers did a fabulous job of integrating the colors and designs of the football stadium right into the baseball stadium.  The bleachers for the football stadium actually form a canopy above the pavilion down the left field line: a welcome feature in the event Oregon gets a little rain.  The concession stands for the football stadium double as concession stands for the baseball stadium.  It was a smart little maneuver, and it leads to a nice, integrated experience.  The field is surrounded by active softball fields–if a spectator goes up to the concourse and cranes a neck in nearly any direction, he or she can watch a coed slow-pitch game in progress.  Then, to get back to the car (quite a hike, by the way), one walks past several softball games into the night.  I like that.

Alas, there are negatives with any positives, and the artificial turf on the field are the negative.  Since the ballpark will be used by high

 schools during the 327 days a year the Hops are not around, they wanted a resilient surface, and the ground-up tires therefore made a lot of sense.  While I’d have made the same decision myself, what is gained in utility is lost in attractiveness.  With the exception of the  pitcher’s mound and the area around home plate, the infield “dirt” is simply the same rubber turf as the outfield, only painted reddish-tan.  It’s a bit off-putting, and I wish there were another way.

Opening night was a nice, cathartic experience for me.  I was pleased to see that the Hops understood the importance of the night to those of us who would care to show up for it.  They had several nice touches:  a display honoring the Portland Beavers, for instance (including lineup cards for their final game: a rare case where I saw a display for a game that I was actually present for).  Local kid baseball players had dug up home plate at

 PGE Park after the final game, and they returned with the same home plate at Hillsboro, actually running it around the bases to put it into the ground and be used in Hops Stadium.  The team hired Rich Burk, the very able radio announcer for the Beavers, for the same job with the Hops, and he donned a tux to do all the pregame duties.

Once the game got going, it appeared that the Hops could have used a little more rehearsal.  The scoreboard had a few problems:  for starters, they could have figured out how to do better than the

 generic “Hops” and “Guest” on the scoreboard.  Also, at least twice as the Hops crushed the Emeralds 12-0, the scoreboard operator put up an incorrect number of runs in a half inning.  The only way he/she could fix it was to reset the entire linescore and put in all the numbers yet again, even running through the outs.  It was rather funny to watch.  Also, the PA system was far too loud.  (To be fair, many of these were fixed by the time I attended the team’s third home game two nights later.)

But I still am glad this is my home park because there’s a lot right with it.  The game can be seen from nearly anywhere on the concourse.  The history of Portland baseball is very much on display and

valued.  There is an honoring of veterans from all branches of the service at every game (who cares if they called it “a Hillsboro Stadium tradition” at the very first game…if it hasn’t happened yet, it’s not a tradition, right?).  And, as if to reward all of us for our patience in waiting for a baseball team to return, the inaugural game featured a full double-rainbow past the left field foul pole and a fantastic sunset past first base.

It’s possible my perspectives on my home ballpark will change over the course of the chunk of games I’ll attend per year for the forseeable future, but my first impression is that the team mostly got it right.  They’re local, unashamed of being in the low level minors, and unashamed of being small.  That’s enough for me to overlook the negatives of the ballpark and look forward to quite a few games here over the years.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional Feel:  7/10

The celebration of Oregon baseball makes a big impact here–looking back at the Beavers and tying it all together with past teams.  Plus lucking into a rainbow on opening night spoke to me.

Charm: 2.5/10

I like the nestling next to the high school stadium, being surrounded by local softball leagues, and there’s plenty to like here architecturally.  But oh, oh, oh…that turf.

Spectacle:  4.5/5

Lots going on between innings, but no interference with the game.  Marvelous.  Even if, on the very first day the park opened, they mentioned a “Hillsboro Hops Stadium Tradition.”  I only wish they’d said “We started this tradition at the beginning of this sentence, and have done it ever since.”

Team Mascot/Name:  4/5

Barley the Hop is the mascot.  I like the idea of a kid high-fiving the main component in beer.  The name “Hops” may have been a little bit of a slap in the face to the team’s predecessors in Yakima, where they grow a lot more hops than near Hillsboro, but what the hell.

Aesthetics:  3.5/5

Would be 5 without the turf, but hey.

Pavilion area:  4/5

Quite nice.  Tough to watch the game from the outfield, however. (But possible to watch nearby softball games if you get bored with the Hops.)

Scoreability:  1/5

This may improve eventually, but the first two games I attended were really weak in this area.  The scoreboard operator would make really basic errors (like the number of outs in an inning), and I could see the umpire demonstratively displaying outs to counteract the incorrect scoreboard.  In fact, we in the stands started signalling outs to each other as if we were players on the field.  (“Two down, everybody!  Two down!  Play is at first!”)

Fans:  5/5

All that pent-up baseball love came out nicely.  I was glad to be a part of it.

Intangibles:  4/5

Pleased for this to be my home ballpark.

TOTAL:  35.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

The debut game was a blowout for the Hops.  Jordan Parr hit the first home run in ballpark history while young Jose Martinez led four pitchers to a three-hit shutout.

I “see” my first inside-the-park-home-run ever here in July of 2013.  I say “see” because I lost the ball in the sun.  When I heard no response around me, I assumed a foul ball, and was then confused to look up from my nachos and see the runner crossing home plate.  It turns out the the Hops’ left fielder, Yogey Perez-Ramos, also lost the ball in the sun. It landed about 50 feet behind him near the left-field foul pole.  By the time center fielder Brian Billigen got to it, Everett’s Jack Reinheimer was crossing home plate.  Not a lot of excitement in the ballpark: mostly confusion (I had to check the news accounts to figure out exactly how that happened and how I missed it).

Both the 2014 and 2015 Hops won the Northwest League, and I had the pleasure of watching the clincher of the South Division series over Boise in 2014. I liked how businesslike the team was about it–they weren’t done. An already-scheduled trip took me away for the Northwest League Championship series that same week, but it was still a pleasure to watch.

Written July 2013. Updated April 2016.

PK Park, Eugene, Oregon

PK Park, Eugene, OREGON

Number of states:  still 31
States to go:  still 19

Number of games:  1
First game:  July 4, 2012 (Eugene Emeralds 9, Everett AquaSox 1)

(Click on any image to see a larger version.)

I can’t believe that 2012 was the 10th time that Michelle and I hit the road to do a July 4th Minor League Road Trip.  It’s getting a little harder to find a team within striking distance (since I eschew going to the same stadium twice…at least for now…), but since the Emeralds moved from Civic Stadium to their new digs in 2010, a

trip to PK Park was an easy decision in 2012.  We packed up two kids and headed down I-5 for some baseball and fireworks.

I had such mixed feelings about Civic Stadium, and those mixed feelings re-emerged about the new ballpark.  I really enjoyed the rustic feel of the old place, but didn’t enjoy the cramped feel or the sense that I could burn to death at any moment.  A new ballpark was absolutely essential, and yet I was worried that a new ballpark would be so similar to other places that I would no longer feel like I was in a special place.  Additionally, I had some concerns about the Emeralds sharing a facility with the Oregon Ducks.  PK Park was built primarily on the emotion of envy.  When Oregon State won a couple of College

World Series, the Ducks, who had played baseball as a club sport for years, suddenly wondered “why not us?” and built a state-of-the-art facility to attract talent to try to duplicate the Beavers’ success.  (As of 2012, that success looked like it was on the edge of coming: the ’12 Ducks were within one win of making it to Omaha.)  In fact, according to the Ducks’ athletic department web site, PK Park is named for former duck AD Pat Kilkenny.  This fact surprised Michelle and me, who would have bet a C-note on the PK standing for Phil Knight.  He’s built everything else related to Duck athletics…why not this?

In any event, I was concerned that PK Park would have the same shortcomings for Northwest League ball as some spring training ballparks (such as this one) have for

Florida State League ball.  In other words, I don’t like the minor league team to look like they’re just there at the whim of the REAL home team.  But the Emeralds (and, I think, the Ducks) did well to nearly scrub the place clean of any Duck identification.  There were some that could not be avoided:  the looming presence of Autzen Stadium next door, for instance, or the green-and-gold decor, or the Pac 12 decals on the walls behind home plate.  But this felt like the Emeralds’ home rather than a sublet.  The Emeralds’ Hall of Fame was quite well-done: huge banners honoring great Emeralds of the past.  It didn’t matter whether the players went on to greatness with other teams (Ryan Freese, Mike Sweeney) or if they were just MVP for a Northwest League season, never to be really heard from again.  Everyone got a huge banner, and I liked that.  I am pretty sure that those banners are replaced by Duck banners during the NCAA season, which is fine.

Perhaps most telling were two busts of ballplayers I spied…BEHIND a table where an Emeralds worker played the spin-the-wheel-and-get-a-prize game.  I asked her if I could go back there to see the sculptures, and I did…where I found two Ducks.  Net result: they were actively trying to prevent spectators

from seeing Duck history.

Not that the crowd cared much.  This July 4 crowd was there to party.  One of the biggest cheers of the night was when it was announced that the beer sales would be extended through the ninth inning (I would imagine because they figured everyone could sober up during the fireworks show).  And I had this bizarre exchange with a random fan when I was walking 3-year-old Steven around to look at the Emeralds Hall of Fame banners (the kid LOVES that shit).   We had just looked up at the banner commemorating Cory Luebke’s stellar 2007 season for the Emeralds when a fan with a beer talked to me.

FAN:  Is that the beer batter?
ME:  Huh?
FAN:  That guy up there.  Is that the beer batter?
ME:  No.  Not the beer batter.  A guy in the Emeralds Hall of Fame.

The more I think about that exchange, the stranger it is.  He had to overlook the “Emeralds Hall of Fame” label on the banner, the fact that the guy was wearing an Emeralds jersey, the “2007” label, and the fact that the dude was PITCHING in

the photo.  But even if you overlook all of that, his assumption that they’d make a 10-foot long banner for the Beer Batter (the dude on the opposition who reduces beer prices to $3 for 15 minutes if the Emeralds manage to strike him out) is comical, because they’d have to make a giant banner for every single game.  Seems like a breathtaking waste of resources.  I think that this fan is a little like my students who draw nothing but marijuana leaves on every piece of paper they see.  He just had beer on his mind so much that everything he sees became beer.

But I still feel that this was a good crowd.  I can forgive some non-baseball attention on July 4th Fireworks Night.  And I also was surrounded by some pretty awesome people playing with both of my children.  16-month-old Aaron looked over my shoulder and flirted with the entire row behind me at some point, doing high fives and “ET Phone Home” index finger touches with anyone who wanted to all night long, as well as playing “I’ll drop something, say ‘uh-oh!’ and smile at you until

you pick it up” until I put the kibosh on that.

The approximately 6- and 7-year-0ld kids on my left to a liking to Steven and played with him all night long.  They were blown away that Steven could read the scoreboard.  Listening to their conversations were hilarious.  The kids would read a baseball card to Steven, and Steven would tell them what team he played for, and even correct their pronunciation.  Then, one kid said that he had been to Safeco Field for a game: a pretty good feat, actually, since Eugene is about 5 or 6 hours down the road from Seattle.  I was ready for Steven to talk about the games he’d seen at Safeco, but instead, he said “I…have…been………to Idaho.”

I couldn’t stop laughing.  Where the hell did that come from?  Michelle suggested that Steven said

this because he’s been to so many ballgames that they’re not as special to him as Idaho.

The kids were impressed enough with Steven that they offered me a straight-up trade of him for their little sister.  “She’s four and she can’t even read yet!”  I declined.

In the category of “strangest conversation

with an on-deck batter,” I nominate my son and the Emeralds’ Ronnie Richardson.  This game was in the midst of a huge beard obsession for my son.  When his two obsessions–baseball and facial hair–meet, things get pretty intense.  He’d look at on-deck batters and we’d say “Steven, what do you want to say to him?” and he’d cheer (not loud enough to be heard four feet away) “Go, River!” or “Get a hit, Jason!”  But for Richardson, Steven said he wanted to say “I like your beard!”  So, when Ronnie turned to face us–just on the other side of the netting–I said to him the following:   “Mr. Richardson, my son says he likes your beard.  And he’d know…he LOVES beards.”  Ronnie was kind enough to reply with what I believe to be the only possible reply:  a bewildered smile.  I hopethat both he and his beard go far.

As for the Emeralds’ atmosphere, it was fine. 

The on-field stuff was appropriate for single-A ball…stuff between  innings that’s pretty fun and funny.  The ballpark itself was a little antiseptic and reminiscent of every other new small ballpark out there, and it’s a little hard to tell that you’re in Oregon outside of all of the Duck-related color and sights out there.  This makes the ballpark a little difficult to score on the “is there any question where in the United States you are” contest.  On the one hand, there’s nothing in the land that says “Western Oregon” like there was at Civic Stadium.  But Autzen Stadium and the green-and-gold attached to the Ducks’ soccer facility beyond right field does indicate Eugene, which is difficult to extricate from its university as any university town is.  But then, as I said before, I don’t want to feel like I’m at an NCAA event.  I want to feel like I’m at a Northwest League game.  Confusing!

But still fun.  My family and I had a great time hanging out into the night.  It was worth the 1:30 AM arrival home.  We’d never been out with both kids sleeping in the back seat as we drove late into the night before.  I liked that feeling.

We will almost certainly be back.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional Feel:  6.5/10.

The antiseptic corporate feel of the place didn’t say “Oregon” to me, but there’s no doubt the place is in Eugene due to the U or O everywhere.  However, as I say above, that’s a mixed blessing, one which the ballpark dodges with some success with its focus on Emeralds’ history.

Charm:  3/5

Turf is not charming, but “Fowl Territory” is nice.

Spectacle:  4/5

Pretty good overall.  This is the second time Michelle and I have been underwhelmed by an Emeralds’ fireworks show, however.  It might be time for them to seek out a new vendor.

Team Mascot/Name:  4/5

Not sure what Sluggo (right) is.  The giant tree on the left is pretty nice for liberal Oregon and inflates the score, Stanford Tree be damned.

Aesthetics:  4/5

Lovely new ballpark.  Again, however:  Turf.

Pavilion area:  3.5 /5

Works fine–a few things to look at.  Still, I’d like to be able to walk around the ballpark, and there were many, many stairs–way more than I’d like–to get anywhere distant.

Scoreability:  5/5

PK Park did an excellent job here.  I managed to score the game very nicely even while wrangling two boys, and that’s in good part due to the efforts of the crew there.

Fans:  4.5/5

A tad rowdy, but most were very good to my children and having a good time.

Intangibles:  4.5/5

Had a good night there–one my kids will remember for a while.  Us too–both kids fell asleep during fireworks while my wife and I held hands.  Can’t argue with that.

TOTAL:  39/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Justin Hancock,the starting pitcher for Eugene, was the player I was most impressed with tonight. He threw 5 innings of 1-hit ball, striking out 7.

Jeremy Baltz carries the biggest stick of the night, driving in three runs, two with a double.

Ronnie Richardson and his nice beard score on a big hit in the eighth:  Richardson doubles, then scores on a throwing error by the AquaSox’s Chris Taylor on the relay throw.

Written July 2012.

Banner Island Ballpark, Stockton, California

Banner Island Ballpark, Stockton, CALIFORNIA

State number:  still 31
States to go:  19

Number of games:  1
First game:  July 3, 2011 (Stockton Ports 5, San Jose Giants 3)

(Click on any image to see a larger version.)

Children have slowed down my ballpark quest just a tad, for financial and practical reasons–at least for a small amount of time.  The elder is such a massive baseball fan that he’s currently on target to put me to shame in that department, and the younger…well, it’s too early to judge.  As a result, I only added one new ballpark in 2011:  Banner Island Ballpark in Stockton.  Could have been more if the PCL and California League schedule-makers had been kinder

during our trip down to Lake Tahoe, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.  Still, we got this one in.  When we told 2 1/2 year-old Steven we would be watching the San Jose Giants play the Stockton Ports, he was excited to see Tim Lincecum.  This meant some explanation of how the San Jose Giants are not the same as the San Francisco Giants.  Too early to discuss major vs. minor leagues, promotion, demotion, release…but he does know that the San Jose Giants are different from their parent club.  Not too bad for 28 months.

In any event, it was 98 degrees on this July 3rd Fireworks Night, and I held the elder’s hand while my wife wore the younger on her chest.  Blessedly, our seats in the third row behind home plate were in the shade

all night long (avoid the third base side at the ballpark, y’all, unless you want to feel like a fried egg).  Unfortunately, there were people in front of us, and Steven could see little.  I wound up holding the little dude in my lap for a while as my wife scored the game.  When we switched, and I walked the elder around the ballpark, some at-bats went unscored…but that’s what happens with kids.  A worthwhile sacrifice.

On those wanderings, I found a pretty nice stadium–just a little bit corporate, but serviceable and pleasant.  It sits on the river, although there’s not much of a hint of it unless one walks beyond right field to check out the view.  There, fans mostly watched the game, which was especially impressive on Fireworks Night.  I deeply appreciated the pavilion, which enabled me, both with my leashed child and without him, to walk all the way around the park and enjoy the experience as best as I could from many vantage points.

In addition to the usual spectacle that comes with a 4th of July minor league game, there was a special occasion this evening, but not one I discovered until it was too late, and my scorebook was sullied.  Allow me to explain.

I have a little game I started to play with my old scorebooks a couple of years ago.  Namely, I try to get ballplayers to autograph the best past game they’ve played in my presence.  This means that I make it a point to check out the rosters before ballgames and bring appropriate past scoresheets for them to sign.  I try not to be a jerk about it…I never try to elbow my way past kids, for instance…but I have gotten some signatures in both my major

league and minor league books.

So, before we departed, I jotted down players I’d seen play for both the San Jose Giants and Stockton Ports.  I’d seen 6 Giants and 2 Ports play, almost all in Northwest League games over the past several years.  I  wrote down their names and uniform numbers. And there, signing quite a few autographs down the left field line, was a lone San Jose Giant.  #17.  I checked my scorebook.  I’d seen #17, Jose Flores, play on 7/4/2008 for Salem-Keizer.  So I got out the appropriate scorebook and got in line.  I allowed two ten-year-olds to borrow my pen.  I then said to #17:

“Hi.  Could I get you to sign this game you played for Salem-Keizer a few years ago?”

I pointed at the spot beneath the #3 hitter, for that game, Jose Flores.  The guy said “Wow!” and signed it.

He signed it “#9 Brandon Belt.”

Huh?

OK.  Turned out that Belt was on a rehab assignment for the SF Giants in San Jose and wasn’t listed on the web site when I checked.  (This explained the incredible popularity of his autographs.)  So I don’t blame the website.

I partly blame the Ports, whose program contained really out of date

information. I’d like game notes and would even pay for them if they had complete and accurate rosters.

I partially blame the Giants.  Why not give Belt a number someone else doesn’t have?  #17 wasn’t even his number for San Francisco.  Was he just borrowing jerseys of similarly-sized players who are not playing that day?

And I give some of the blame to Mr. Belt himself.  Yes, I know he’s busy and that he’s doing an unabashedly nice thing by signing so many autographs, and for that I am grateful, as are the many kids around me.  But since I

said “I saw you play in Salem-Keizer” and pointed at Flores’ name to signthere, couldn’t he have picked up on that?  Most other players I’ve gotten to sign have (although, to be fair, I haven’t made a similar mistake in any other circumstances).

In any event, I have Brandon Belt’s autograph under Jose Flores’ name, and a rather long-winded (andlow-payoff) story to explain it.

If I recall correctly (as I write this some 9 months later), there was some sort of cool bar-like area in left field.  I wanted to take a photo

from within the bar, but wasn’t sure whether it was a 21-and-only area or not.  But nobody was checking, so I walked in there with my toddler-on-a-leash, took a picture, and left.  Please do not prosecute me for contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

And, for the record, I have never been a fan (not even remotely) of the red-white-and-blue special jerseys.  Gaudy.  Icky.  Baseball is, in itself, patriotic enough.  If one must go the patriotic route, go for the camouflage.  Can’t go wrong there…that’s a good look.

Anyway, Stockton does especially well in the central is-there-any-question-where-you-are test. There were many nice touches.  First, the prevalence of “Casey at the Bat” was lovely.  Stockton, as Wikipedia will tell you, claims that the poem was based on the Stockton

Ports, since Ernest Thayer wrote the poem while he was covering the Ports for the San Francisco Examiner.  The truth of that claim aside (to be honest, I don’t care whether it’s true–it’s the emotional connection to baseball and poetry is what gets me), it was cool to see Casey in several points through the ballpark, including the entire poem written by children around a mosaic, and the name of the concession stand.  In addition to Casey, there were ample retired jersey numbers and a plaque describing the historical significance of the site.  I thoroughly enjoyed that.

It wasn’t just old Ports that were celebrated: recent Ports were as well, as noted by a gigantic banner celebrating former Port Dallas Braden’s then-recent perfect game. I especially liked that he was depicted in a Ports’ uniform and not as an Oakland Athletic.  And if that’s not enough, well, you can’t go wrong with fried asparagus.

Seven bucks?  Worth every penny.  But then, I love both fried things and asparagus.

In any event, the minor league 4th of July road trip tradition continues, and shall continue with children who likely will curse us for it one day “Da-aaaad, why can’t we stay home and watch fireworks like regular people do???” And I continue to enjoy it, as it takes me to nice places and people like we found here.  Again–we’ll have to stay within driving distance for a while, but we’ve done nine of these now, and I just can’t picture the

holiday without it.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  8/10
What the ballpark lacks in regional feel via view (the arena next door doesn’t tell me where I am) it makes up for in local baseball history (all things Dallas Braden), in the poetry, and in the asparagus stand, plus the visible-if-you-walk-to-it river.

Charm: 3.5/5
A little too slick, a little too sponsor-heavy.

Spectacle:  3.5/5
Not too bad for low minors, but  man, do I ever dislike those stars-and-stripes uniforms.

Team Mascot/Name: 2/5

Splash and me.  As this picture is taken, I’m attempting to solve the obvious question:  what the hell is this thing?  So I asked Splash:   “Are you the product of a romantic liaison between Elmo and the Phillie Phanatic?”  Splash nodded.  I said I wouldn’t tell, but I’m getting it out here.  Clearly, Elmo is all grown up and on the prowl.  Anyway, not a huge fan of this indeterminate, derivative dude or his name.

Aesthetics: 4/5
A lovely ballpark overall.  It’s a shade corporate, and I’d like to see the river and the game at the same time, but there’s a lot more good than bad aesthetically.

Pavilion: 4.5/5
Quite nice.  Circumnavigation is easy, and one is treated to river views in the process.  Plenty of baseball-themed stuff to do, and one can almost (almost) follow the game from all vantage points (this is the reason for the half-point deduction.

Scoreability: 4.5/5
Don’t recall a problem here.  They were more attentive than I could be with two kiddoes on my hands.  Minor deduction because the glare on the scoreboard made it difficult to read.

Fans:  4/5
Several nice people complimenting my children near the seats.  Bad:  One hoodlum pre-teen flipping  me sarcasm as I wandered around the park taking pictures  “Please, no flash photography.”  Punk cost his ballpark an ENTIRE POINT!  I’m sure this will cause him to re-think his ways.  (Here he is, before he started giving me punk attitude…my knowledge that he was a snot has ruined what would otherwise be one of my favorite photos.)

Intangibles: 3.5/5
A little too corporate for my tastes, but not a bad night on the whole

TOTAL: 37.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

A Dusty Coleman triple and a Mitch LeVier home run give the Ports the lead in the second inning, but Dusty Coleman drives home the game-winner on a 6th-inning single.

Dan Straily pitches well enough for the win.  Zack Wheeler strikes out 8 in 6 innings  in the loss.

Michael Choice also homers for the Ports.

(Written July 2011.  Modified April 2012.)